Is It Morally Right To Sell Safety You Know Isn’t Sustainable?

By Phil La Duke 

I have spent twelve years yapping like a barking rat about the snake oil salesmen who sell crap they “thunk up” and started peddling like a 19-century travelling salesmen. I have often make them out to be bad guys or even evil. Most of the people shilling snake oil believe that they are doing right, in fact, many of them are honest-to-goodness zealots, practically cult members willing to kill anyone who dare propose a different methodology.

But there is another breed emerging; a new con: the safety culture change practitioners. Given that I sell a safety infrastructure intervention that has sustainable culture change as one of its outcomes I have to tread lightly, but there are a fair number of safety sales people who sell safety culture change but deliver a climate change (and as anyone who listens to politicians knows, climate change is a myth) instead.

I have been working in corporate culture change for almost three decades, and have been focusing my culture change skills on safety for the last 16 so I get a bit irascible when people who were slinging BBS five years ago have coopted my chosen career by taking one discredited methodology and repackaging it as the solution d’jour. They know that people won’t buy the crap they are selling but they sell it anyway. I understand it; everyone has to make a buck and they reason that if they don’t do it, someone else would; it’s understandable, but unforgivable. It’s the same argument that pimps and heroin dealers use to justify what they do. The top guys justify making big bucks by claiming that they are selling solutions that save lives despite having no proof beyond stats that say their customers haven’t killed anyone recently. The consultants in the field give use the Nuremberg defense that they aren’t guilty since they are only doing their jobs—that didn’t fly at Auschwitz and it doesn’t fly here. If someone dies because you are doing your job you are culpable for that death (assuming your job is selling unsustainable climate change as long-term corporate culture change that values worker safety.)

In China some business leaders were struggling to sell milk and baby formula with the sufficient percentage of protein required by law; if they met the government requirements their profits would sink and they would risk losing their jobs; indeed their very livelihoods. The business leaders hit on a simple idea—slip a small amount of a chemical, Melamine, to make it look and test as if it had the appropriate protein levels. Unfortunately, the scheme worked and the companies were able to continue doing business without being hassled by the government. Things were going so well that the businesses began adding more and more of this toxic chemical to their products. And then people started dying. According to The London Guardian, the scandal that transcended many companies, claimed 300,000 victims of which, six infants died of kidney stones caused by the toxic chemical and another 10 babies died from malnutrition (since what their parents thought was milk was essentially white paint). Arrests were made and an example was made of two businessmen who were executed, and in my opinion, more should have been.

Climate change is not unlike poison milk: it seems to work, at least for a while, but unless you keep upping the percentage of poison the climate change can’t last and in the case of safety people die. Climate change is like a speed trap, once people know that a cop is waiting with a radar gun and an empty ticket book you had better slow down. Speed traps get results: traffic slows as the ticket book fills up. Of course as soon as the trap is dismantled traffic resumes to it’s former state. Now an ambitious mayor can claim that he was successful but was he? Was he really successful? Would you pay him millions for his temporary results?

The difference between a climate change and a culture change is that in a culture change the shared values of an organization change. I’ve said before, and will say again, that there is no such thing as a “safety culture” what the uninitiated MEAN when they use the misnomer is a corporate culture that values safety as a core value, something so deeply entrenched into the collective mindset that it is a defining criterion for how decisions are made. In a culture that values safety the value placed on safety is hardwired into how people behave and what is acceptable or unacceptable.

Changing a culture takes its own skill set and requires professionals with experience and a proven track record; it’s more than adding more poison to the milk.